Introducing Arca’s Tormenta
The Experimental Singer/Producer Collaborated with Visual Artist Carlos Sáez on a Visceral, Psychic Performance and Installation to Inaugurate the New, David Chipperfield-Designed SSENSE Flagship
- Interview: Philip Sherburne
- Photography: HART+LËSHKINA (Performance & Portrait Images)
- Photography: Edwin Isford (Installation Images)
Alejandro Ghersi knows how to make an entrance. When I meet him at a café in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter in mid-April, he immediately stands out from the tourist hordes as he slices up the street in matching Prada leggings and a knit top with a kind of cybernetic motocross pattern, his rose-tinted eyeshadow matching the garment’s details. Only his shoes, functional black Nikes, decline to catch the eye. “I put heels on for this interview, but then I was like, ‘No, I’m jetlagged today,’” he laughs, as we sit down for coffee. “Maybe part of it was something like, ‘Okay, Philip knows I’m a freak anyway, I don’t have to.’”
Ghersi, best known for the constantly morphing electronic music he produces as Arca, will be making one of his most dramatic entrances yet when he appears in Tormenta, a hybrid performance and installation taking place in the new, five-story SSENSE flagship in Montreal, designed by the British architect David Chipperfield. Sponsored by Prada, the installation is a collaboration with the Spanish visual artist Carlos Sáez. The performance begins with Arca being carried into the space bound, and from there things get very intense, very quickly.
Spread across three floors of the building, the project consists of a site-specific Arca performance featuring new, as-yet-unreleased music, in which Ghersi moves throughout the crowd; a livestream of the event captured on surveillance cameras; and finally, a public installation comprising the aftermath of the performance.
This isn’t Ghersi’s first foray into site-specific performances and unusual staging—in Los Angeles last fall, he performed inside a glass box—but Tormenta is his most elaborate undertaking to date. The constituent parts—amniotic fluids, fake blood, lasers, the gasoline-slicked surface of a Perspex pool, a mountain of e-waste and medical tubing—go to the heart of Arca’s practice, in which biological forms and high-tech futurism evoke the dark, mutant side of the uncanny.
“SSENSE has never done something like this. It’s their first opening. Prada has never done something like this, and I haven't either,” Ghersi tells me. “I’m not inserting myself into a pre-fabricated mold. There was actually a conversation. I was able to ask for things that felt like I didn't have to compromise my integrity.”
Plus, you get a scissor lift, I mention, glancing at the specs of the set.
He fixes me with a look. “I get way crazier shit.” And he smiles.
Walk me through Tormenta. It’s a performance that leads to an installation?
Not really. You can't really talk about one without the other.
My practice as a performer has taken me to a place where what feels most exciting is to not have a traditional separation between the audience and myself while I perform. It’s such a small space that each floor is really intimate, so the audience is going to be really close. What’s happening with SSENSE at that space is a performance that I’d already imagined for many years, but I had never come across the platform or the space where it made sense. It’s based on this idea of a ritual. I wanted to make it like a jungle gym of my dreams and nightmares. It's broken up into different islands, and I don't necessarily have to do one thing. I get to improvise. I need to reserve the right to be spontaneous.
My performances hold a lot of symbolism for me. Carrying them out is therapeutic and cathartic. Somehow my own unconscious must be feeling out what I can do that is alchemical for my personal emotional life, because there's a story to the performance. All of this was already in my mind before I asked Carlos to work with me. Then when I met Carlos and I fell in love with Carlos, I started talking about the performance with him, and I asked him if he would be up for doing the installation part with me. That’s affected the performance. He’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever met, but it’s also given me a beautiful… When there’s love, you can be braver.
So, set the scene for me a little bit. I know that it’s a five-story space, and the spectators will be scattered throughout, with you moving among them?
There are three different floors and three different acts. The top floor is a kind of imprisonment, but there’s an escape out of that.
You’re brought up bound, right?
By two men.
No, that changed. I didn’t like that because it’s too erotic. That’s not what I was trying to get at, and I finally figured out the right thing. The people that are carrying me against my will and putting me into a cage are being cast so that there’s one man and one woman around the age of my parents. This isn’t stuff that I’m going to be talking about during the show—it’s not going to be explicit. That’s what I needed for the performance to mean what it’s supposed to mean.
That room is quite stark. There’s no color. After that, I move to the second space, which is pink and flooded with love. I kind of, I guess, make love to a laser beam.
As one does.
Right. That laser was Carlos’ idea, so it’s also really romantic for me. There’s a representation of something that’s happening in my romantic relationship with him that had never happened to me before. At first, I evade it and I dance with it. Then, the first time it touches me, it hurts. Then the second time I let it touch me, it hurts a little less. I think if you encounter love for the first time and you’re not used to it, it hurts more than pain. At least, that happened with me. And then gradually you let yourself trust.
The first floor is my creative DNA with very little of Carlos. The second floor is more Carlos’ world and vision, because he works a lot with lasers and very bright, saturated colors. I read this study once about depressed people having Instagrams with black-and-white pictures or less-saturated colors, while people that describe themselves as happy had more saturated pictures with brighter colors. Our Instagrams are so different. Mine is really grayscale. I’m not trying to make it two-dimensional, like, I'm a bummer and he's not, I’m just saying in our artistic practices I have had a tendency to try and process pain, so there's a drama to that. The imagery that matches that will have less saturated color. He’ll have a lot of bright and joyous and color. I think that's beautiful, too, when you have different things that you learn from each other in any relationship.
Then the third floor is supposed to be the sum, where there's a mountain of e-waste and trash and I stand on top of it and sing with an asthma mask on. That came from me, because I had really strong asthma as a child. There’s a microphone in the asthma mask. Then the e-waste and the material of working with technological trash, that was Carlos. I guess I'm explaining this to communicate how intermingled it is, and how there's kind of like a shimmer in how the relationship happened.
How did you meet Carlos?
We met at a music festival called Dekmantel where I was DJing. I’d given a friend some passes for friends of his, and Carlos was one of them. While I was talking with him I remember feeling that I’d never met anyone who had such an encyclopedic brain about music. He knew about changa tuki producers from Caracas that very few Venezuelans know about. He just loves music a lot. We were talking about all kind of things—electronic music and old films that I haven't seen, and I felt this attraction to the way he talks about things that he's passionate about. I was just totally smitten.
That must be a funny feeling, because normally after you play a show, you’re not necessarily thinking about other people; you’re still focused on the show and your own ego, in a sense.
Totally. Also, he took the first initiative because I was at a point where I was really not trying to meet anyone. I don’t want to give details, but he made this gesture of interest. I was so confused. Afterward we went to this club and I was like, “Okay, I have to go, I have a flight tomorrow.” I just ran away and didn’t speak to him for two months. But I kept thinking about that interaction.
No emails, no texts?
Nothing. I just disappeared. I don’t know if it was that I wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel ready. Then, two months later, I stumbled across a video piece of his on Instagram, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s Carlos.”
Did you know he was an artist?
He had told me, but I had never seen his stuff. Also, you’re right about meeting someone after walking off stage: I was also at a point where I didn’t want to be liked for what I did. I wanted to be liked for what I am, and I didn’t think that was the ideal situation to meet someone. There were a lot of reasons why I disappeared, but when I saw his face again, I just reached out. I was like, “Hey,” and he was like, “Hey.” Then we just started to talk every day.
You recently did a video, “Fetiche”, together with Carlos.
Yeah. We’d been talking for a while about heel-fetish videos. I’ve been interested in them, like, what does a high heel mean to me, and why does it mean so many things to me? We were originally going to do it with Eggs Benedict. But we were in San Francisco and walked right past this flower shop that had the most beautiful flowers. We were like, “Why don’t we just do it in the hotel with an iPhone?”
It’s an interesting piece, because it’s hard to define what it is. It’s 11 minutes, so it’s not a single. It’s not an EP.
I love that people can’t make up their minds about what it is. I have to admit I was happy. I was like, "I accidentally did it again." Everyone, when they write about it, they write different things, and I love that. If ever I can put something out that illustrates that everyone’s just interpreting to the best of their ability, that feels so right to me.
There’s something humorous about the video, which is a side of your work that doesn’t get discussed much.
You know who gets the humor? A lot of the queer fans that I have get it right away. I think there’s a lot of gay, trans, and gender-nonconforming people that are into what I do that comment on stuff on Twitter that are fucking hilarious. But it’s true. Me and Carlos were laughing so hard while filming it.
I was trying to imagine what filming it must have been like.
It’s this weird combination of intense laughter and intense performance. It starts really serious, but then there’s like a “fuck you,” and I kick the flowers for the first time. I’m, like, fucking the flowers with a heel and then I’m sliding all over the corpse.
It looked quite precarious, in those shoes.
I don’t know how I don’t fall more often. I have fallen a couple times, but it was worth it. The times where I’ve fallen were the right times to fall, and I learned.
In the SSENSE performance, you’ll have mismatched heels of two different heights.
It’s actually easier to have the heels of different heights than to not have heels at all. That’s what I’ve learned. The difficulty and sacrifice of wearing heels is less difficult than not wearing them for me, psychologically.
Do you often wear heels?
All the time. I’ll take eight-hour flights with them, and it’s really impractical and I’ll ask myself why I didn’t wear sneakers or something. I think it’s because the gazes I encounter from strangers—they hurt, but it hurts more not to express this dissonance that’s inside of me. It’s like, I am willing to make myself vulnerable to show that I can express this thing. Because when you have heels, especially if I am walking around Barcelona…
Yeah, and it’s uphill. You can run less fast in heels. I come from Caracas, where there’s a real risk. So, sometimes you’re thinking in really animal terms of safety. I’ve been broken into in London. I’ve been chased home because I was wearing a skirt. I’ve been scared for my well-being. But I fucking find avoiding that sense of threat sometimes hurts more than just feeling threatened, and I hate that and I love it.
So, wearing heels is a way of confronting that.
But I ask myself, why? I write these weird poems to myself—one of them I wrote, is it for attention or is it for relief, and is there a difference, and does it matter for me to try and find an answer? Is it for myself? Is it for others? Is it because I want to feel special? Is it because I don’t feel special enough? What the fuck is that? What are the things that drive my behavior? I’m starting to learn that the answers to those questions might not exist in a simple way.
Let’s talk about some of the themes of Tormenta.
The themes—I mean, by saying a theme, I’m going to be dumbing it down. I don’t think there’s a theme.
But there are autobiographical elements.
Absolutely. They’re also universal things. There’s this weird Möbius strip of relatability where if you go really deep and really personal you just touch upon what makes you human. I’m fighting against this thing inside me that believed that I wasn’t made for this world, that I don’t belong. It sounds really loaded, but in doing so, people come up to me and they’re like, “I really related to what you did,” even though all I’ve been trying to do is express the things that made me feel most different.
I find that it happens most in areas of expression outside of language. The gaps in between the words or the physical gestures or the sounds playing at this particular rhythm in these particular frequencies. They can build a bridge better than language can. That’s what I think excites me most about performing. Even though I’m singing lyrics in particular languages, there’s these millions of other things that you can’t really put into words.
After the performance is all over, what will the installation consist of? What will visitors who come to the space see?
They’re going to see the cage that I broke out of. They’re going to see the pile of trash and e-waste, which are materials Carlos uses in his work. He has this installation with lots of disused old computer screens, and then he hacks the circuitry in them. It’s fucking beautiful, because it’s all this shit that no one was ever going to use anymore. My contribution will be medical stuff like asthma masks and tubing. The differences between computer cabling and medical cabling on some conceptual level are not that great—like the way we hook ourselves up to machines in hospitals, the way we hook ourselves up to our phone. Something doesn’t have to be in your body to become a part of how your body functions. Carlos and I are really interested in trans-humanism.
So, when people walk into the building, they’ll ideally see the cage suspended above them, and then in front, the mountain of e-waste with a smoke machine inside, and heavy fog and lighting to make the space as enveloping as possible. On the second floor, they’ll see the laser moat—that’s the shorthand we’ve come up with. It will have a laser trailing a very slow figure-eight, and a projection of light ripples emanating radially from the laser point as it moves. Then the surface of milky water with lights inside that are pulsing gently, and flower petals, and fake blood that has dripped off the surface of this Perspex island that’s in the middle of it.
I think it will be a really emotional room because there are a lot of signifiers that there was something human that underwent some kind of process there with body fluid. It's also quite futuristic in the sense that it's in this space made with really, really amazing concrete. I’ve never seen concrete like the one used in the SSENSE building. It’s very finely ground and it’s so matte it absorbs light, but then if you look at how light bounces off of it and you trail your eyes further along the surface, it gets reflective. It’s really weird. I have never seen a material like this. When I saw the building, I was like, “What the fuck?” It’s like a spaceship. Everything is calculated millimetrically.
Then in the middle of this space is this very clinically constructed metal and glass housing for all these bodily fluids. They're alive. There’s movement, because there's gentle smoke coming from it and light that's going to be spinning and throbbing.
Working with Carlos, what is it like to create work with someone you’re in love with?
I love it so much. I love the ideas and I've never had such a flow. Talking with someone is more charged up, and exciting, and enervating, but I’m just being really careful to not let any ego subsume the other. I'm learning a lot, and I'm also being really careful to stay tender while at the same time not being tender enough that I forget who I am in service of finding a new shared language. In a way, it represents what I think is hard about relationships in general, which is how much can you be yourself while at the same time aligning with the other. That means that you can’t be afraid of conflict. I think conflict is a good thing, because it can only happen when two people are expressing something that’s true to themselves that the other person doesn’t share. I don't believe that everything should be communicated the entire time. That means one or both people are hiding the feelings that inevitably are different than the other person's feelings. No two people think exactly the same, or see the world in exactly the same way. It’s beautiful and I'm being careful, is my answer. I find it so beautiful that I want to be careful.
Philip Sherburne is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Pitchfork. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wire, and more.
- Interview: Philip Sherburne
- Photography: HART+LËSHKINA (Performance & Portrait Images)
- Photography: Edwin Isford (Installation Images)
- Installation: Carlos Sáez
- Hair and Makeup: Andrew Ly
- Costume: Agf Hydra
- Styling: Sasha Wells
- Styling Assistant: Patrick Colas